December 1, 2020
Droughts disrupt electric power system operations by reducing the availability of hydropower and nuclear power — the latter is vulnerable to insufficient cooling water supply. One result of droughts, then, is an increased reliance on fossil fuel power plants, which emit pollutants that contribute to poor air quality.
With a new $1.6 million grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF), researchers at the UNC-Chapel Hill Gillings School of Global Public Health will study how droughts are linked with air pollution in the United States — and how that connection may evolve due to climate change.
“When we have less hydropower, we often compensate by using more fossil fuels to generate electricity,” explains principal investigator Jason West, PhD, a professor in the Gillings School’s Department of Environmental Sciences and Engineering (ESE). “At the same time, droughts often happen during weather conditions that make air pollution worse. It’s a confluence of conditions leading to poor air quality and effects on health. We aim to understand these interactions better and to learn how they might change as climate changes.”
The project is co-led by Jordan Kern, PhD, a doctoral graduate of the same department who now works with North Carolina State University’s College of Natural Resources. Their team includes one other ESE colleague: Gregory Characklis, PhD, W.R. Kenan Jr. Distinguished Professor of environmental sciences and engineering and director of the Center on Financial Risk in Environmental Systems. The other investigators are Andrew Yates, PhD, with UNC’s Economics Department; Tamlin Pavelsky, PhD, with UNC’s Department of Geological Sciences; Jared Bowden, PhD, with the N.C. State Department of Applied Ecology; and McKenzie Skiles, PhD, with the Geography Department at the University of Utah.
Human exposure to ozone and fine particulate matter causes a variety of health impacts, which lead to an estimated 61,000 premature deaths each year in the United States. That’s 1 in 47 deaths.
Considering public health and environmental quality as intertwined, the project will investigate how droughts impact electric power generation, air pollution and health in North Carolina and California. These two states have substantial hydropower, and the effects of droughts will be evaluated both under today’s conditions and under conditions likely to be caused by future climate change.
Droughts occur commonly in the United States. Recent examples include the 2008 North Carolina drought and the prolonged 2014-2017 drought in California. Climate change likely has contributed to California’s more recent droughts, as well, and will make droughts more common in several regions around the globe.
While droughts impact air pollution, human emissions of both greenhouse gases and air pollutants may affect regional meteorology and hydrology. In California, this includes changes to snowpack that stores water for use in the summer and fall. Accordingly, this project also will investigate how changes in emissions may, in turn, affect droughts and water availability.
“This is a big interdisciplinary project. It brings together expertise in electric power operations, atmospheric and hydrologic science, health and economics,” says Kern. “We hope to understand better the roles of droughts so that we can better anticipate their effects as climate continues to change. This can inform future decisions about energy resources.”
Contact the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health communications team at firstname.lastname@example.org.